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Getting the Message to Oregon Coast Storm Watchers: Why It's Not Working

Published 01/14/2020 at 5:45 AM PDT
By Andre' Hagestedt, Editor

Getting the Message to Oregon Coast Storm Watchers: Why It's Not Working

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(Portland, Oregon) – This season's run of awful videos showing disregard for beach safety messages on the Oregon coast was gut wrenching and frustrating. Still, it started me thinking more about that behavior. While the most recent tragedy where two children were lost to waves was not a result of willful disregard (it was more likely a freak wave), there were an unbelievable array of storm vids showing a complete recklessness.

Yet every year, the media stories, bulletins from authorities and social media posts are clear and abundant: stay away from this or that situation and heed the warnings issued.

So why do people ignore the obvious? How and why do they put themselves (and others) in harm's way? This season's host of videos showing not just spectacular waves but people ignoring the clear dangers brings on these questions.

The Internet's first reaction is to go caustic and crusty: insults hurled (like the word “idiot”) at the victim are numerous and spiteful. It's a reaction that's not helpful. With those viral near-misses it's understandable, although not completely constructive. Well, a little derision may not be a bad idea.

As editor of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, you want to filter out the crummy and misleading info on your social media, but I admit I find it hard to delete even those harsher comments on this subject, including the ones that seem more at home on the Swearnet network. Perhaps they could help warn others in the future?

Yet what can we do – in the tourism biz and the media – to truly drill this message of “stay away from the dangerous” into visitors' heads? After decades of deaths and injuries due to heavy logs rolling onto people, the state of Oregon seemed to have made an impact on that issue with its high-profile campaigns. What will work with this issue?

All this is very complex, and no one-size-fits-all answer will be found. First, we need to get into that mindset of why they ignore warnings in the first place. We need to star there.

One of the most enraging examples was the video taken by Rock Your World rock shop in Lincoln City, that showed a host of people beyond the barriers the city had put up closing off the area. One of my crazier memories as a news writer 20 years ago for a Portland radio station was the access at Garibaldi that was clearly closed off, but a lot of people wandered in and a few cars parked there anyway. All the cars were inundated and ruined by a massive surge that actually floated the vehicles for a time.

Part of the issue is that some scoff at suggestions of beach safety, and they even argue back. The video above showing people walking in dangerous conditions at Oceanside has had some alarming responses. One person on Oregon Coast Beach Connection's Facebook page actually called it “absurd.” Another gentleman once argued with me over how that beach didn't look dangerous to him. I've had other similar reactions to other dangerous surf videos.

We need to somehow find out why they do this. It's a recipe for future disaster. Then we can work on changing their minds.

I did some asking around of Oregon coast residents to find out if others had similar experiences. Seaside Aquarium's Keith Chandler said when they hand out warning pamphlets about surf dangers people are thankful. That's not the norm, it seems.

Asking around the town of Yachats, where Thor's Well and its hazards have become a hot button issue, residents there told me they get ignored and even flipped off when they try to tell a visitor to stay off a dangerous stretch. Some reported the warnings working about a quarter of the time; most reported little to no impact.

Another reader of Oregon Coast Beach Connection admitted he didn't know about sneaker waves until he lived here for a few years. Originally from another country where the ocean is rather calm, these dangers hadn't crossed his mind.

Chandler and others chimed in with one similar sentiment: it's human nature to be curious about these things and sometimes think you're invincible.

Now we have a tiny sampliing of data, though admittedly largely anecdotal. Perhaps some coastal entity could conduct a survey about people's attitudes? Then we can talk about memorials, barriers and more education programs as solutions.

We can look to what Rockaway Beach had done: they created committees and even a beach education program to help cut down on visitor tragedies.

One thing is for sure: the messages are not sinking in, even with state residents. I watched our own articles get passed around on Facebook (which were essentially just warnings to stay off the beaches) and I could see people's sketchy reactions at times, with talk about going out there into dangerous places. I face-planted so many times my head hurt. I knew someone was getting hurt with this storm. I'm just surprised it's someone who was trying to obey the warnings.

In the end, simply calling people “idiots” for being idiotic isn't going to help. More education, more warning signs, etc., can't hurt, but it will wind up more like throwing darts at the problem. Someone out there with decent resources needs to find out why the warnings are getting ignored.

One thing that seemed to help with the information programs on rolling beach logs were testimonies from families this happened to. Perhaps some of the victims from recent years can come forward and tell their tales as well?

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